Sun | Aug 19, 2018

Garvey and 100 years of UNIA

Published:Sunday | August 10, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Marcus Garvey, founder of the UNIA. - File
Stephen Golding (right), UNIA president, makes a point during a discussion of the topic 'Up Ye Mighty Race: Garveyism and the National Agenda', moderated by Omar Ryan. The event was held at the Institute of Jamaica on June 20. - Gladstone Taylor/Photographer

Barbara Blake Hannah, Guest Columnist

In 1972, newly returned to Jamaica, fleeing eight years of living with racial prejudice in England, I attended an event at the Sheraton Kingston hotel to hear a speech by Evonne Goolagong, an Australian half-Aborigine girl who had just won Wimbledon.

I did not know that whatever admiration I then had for this girl who had just made black history would pale by comparison with the shock of hearing a frail 82-year-old woman speak about a true black hero whose life and philosophy she demanded that we follow. She was Mrs Amy Jacques Garvey and the man she spoke of was her husband, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

I had never heard of Mr Garvey before that day. My education in black history had begun only a few years earlier in England, where racism made me absorb all the 'black is beautiful' information then being spread by American activists of the Black Power movement. I knew about Martin and Malcolm and even Elijah Muhammad, but not Marcus. So it was electrifying for me to hear this small, but fiery woman speak passionately about what Marcus Garvey stood for - the liberation of the black mind.

This woman's words led me on the path I am still trodding today. They forced me to read her publication of Garvey's 'Philosophy and Opinions' and to find how accurately they completed the information necessary for my full mental liberation from slavery.

Of course, in stepping on to the path of Garveyite knowledge, I encountered the people who Garvey's words had inspired to not only seek to return to the African motherland but - even more important - to see black divinity in a crowned African emperor whose dynasty stretched back in ecclesiastical history to Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, David and Jerusalem, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie, whose 122nd birthday was celebrated July 23.


I thus became set firmly on the Rastafari pathway, seeking knowledge where I could. I found the best interpretation of Garvey's teachings among the Rastafari elders, the true and most faithful keepers of Marcus Garvey's flame. The relationship has not always been a smooth one. There was a recent time when the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and Rastafari were not close, both sides quoting Garvey's condemnation of Emperor Selassie for leaving Ethiopia for asylum from the Italian invasion. Those days are far gone, as a professed Rastafarian is now leader of the Jamaican UNIA. Garvey has become respected by the 'middle classes' and even more Ras-pected than ever by the masses from which Garvey rose and who always followed him.

As for those not of Garvey's race or mindset who are still uncomfortable about Garvey's sole focus on race - some even terming it 'black racism' - the 'race' puss is well out of the bag, thanks more to a reflection of the gains of the US civil-rights movements than any effort by the UNIA at home and abroad. I am certain that many still think it's dangerous to teach black people to take hold of their destiny based solely on their blackness.


The fight to teach Garvey in Jamaican schools as not just a figure in history but what he said, has not yet been won. It would clearly need a complete reorder of the Jamaican 'system', based on Garvey's teachings. World History would begin in Egypt, not Greece, and instead of the Middle Ages it would focus on Africa and the development of the Caribbean through the slave trade.

Mathematics would be part of a science curriculum, including engineering. Teaching of the arts and literature would be practical, hands-on. Teaching business management would begin at the primary level, producing graduates with practical experience seeking to provide Africa with trained development specialists in several fields and, thereby, providing the home nation with economic and trade alliances with other black nations and people.

Potential Jamaican leaders often tiptoe around the matter of race, pretending it is invisible when 99 per cent of the crowd is African-descended. An enlightened leadership could use Garvey as the captain to steer the ship of State into prosperous waters, with wise communication programmes in which race becomes regarded as a quality of pride on which to restore a nation and people.


As a close viewer of Jamaican history from Independence to today, I sincerely wonder where Jamaica would be today if Michael Manley and the 1970s Peopele's National Party had used Garvey to inspire the people, instead of aligning with Castro to support democratic socialism.

Perhaps the Garvey way would have meant legalising ganja and making Jamaica an outlaw state for a few years while the country built some schools, houses, roads, hospitals with the Green Gold.


Mrs Amy Jacques Garvey so inspired me to spread the words of Marcus Garvey that in 1972 I started writing articles about Garvey and his philosophy. Each year on his birthday, I would send a letter to The Gleaner editor (then Hector Wynter) that would usually be that paper's only or main memorial. In 1981, while doing some voluntary public relations service for the UNIA, I proposed to the minister of foreign affairs (then Dudley Thompson) that the ministry building be renamed the Marcus Garvey Building. He accepted, and the name still stands on what is now the Courtleigh Hotel, New Kingston.

In 1986, while serving as an independent opposition senator in the Jamaican Parliament, I led a debate in which I proposed that the upcoming centenary of the birth of Garvey be celebrated as a national holiday. The Government, which had Olivia Grange as minister of culture, voted against the proposal, saying the country could not afford a holiday.

My favourite Garvey link of all was being put in charge of the activities surrounding the 1975 unveiling of Garvey's statue at the St Ann Parish Library. After a sunny day and bright afternoon, as soon as the ceremony began, Mr Garvey decided to attend 'in the whirlwind and storm' and a thunderous downpour swamped the event, preventing any photographs from capturing the actual unveiling by Michael Manley. Read into that what you will.

These have been the main ways in which I have sought to pay tribute to the freeing of my mind by Mr Garvey's philosophy and teachings. They revised my thinking about myself as a black person and made me proud for the first time to be black. They gave me a motivation for my future focus and work, and they confirmed that my choice of Rastafari as my life and spiritual pathway is appropriate and totally in keeping with what Mr Garvey taught.

I think Mr Garvey would be proud to meet me. I, of course, would be blessed to meet him.

Barbara Blake Hannah is a documentarian and cultural and communication consultant. Email feedback to and